Recovery from cults is a multifaceted process; initially it is the separation from the group, group practices, and meetings that bound us to the group. Therapy helps address the emotional aspects of group involvement – feelings of betrayal, abuse and vulnerability to recruitment. It helps to develop and understanding of how the group’s doctrine was used to manipulate and encourage commitment.
Our focus in this article is the development of an intellectual understanding of the characteristics of cultic groups – how they differ from non-cultic groups – and of the tactics often used to engender a high level of commitment, a key element of recovery.
Deception lies at the core of mind-manipulating and cultic groups and programs. Many ex-members and supporters of cults are not fully aware of the extent to which they have been tricked and exploited.
The following checklist of characteristics helps to define such groups. Comparing the descriptions on this checklist to bring your attention to aspects of the group with which you were involved may help bring your attention to areas of group life that are a cause for concern.
If you check any of these items as characteristic of the group, and particularly if you check most of them, you might want to consider reexamining these areas of the group and how they affected you. Keep in mind that this checklist is meant to stimulate thought. It is not a scientific method of “diagnosing” a group.
Checklist of Cult Characteristics
We suggest that you check all characteristics that apply to you or your group. You may find that your assessment changes over time, with further reading and research.
q The group is focused on a living leader to whom members seem to display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment.
q The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
q The group is preoccupied with making money.
q Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
q Mind-numbing techniques (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, debilitating work routines) are used to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
q The leadership dictates sometimes in great detail how members should think, act, and feel (for example: members must get permission from leaders to date, change jobs, get married; leaders may prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, how to discipline children, and so forth).
q The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and members (for example: the leader is considered the Messiah or an avatar; the group and/or the leader has a special mission to save humanity).
q The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which causes conflict with the wider society.
q The group’s leader is not accountable to any authorities (as are, for example, military commanders and ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream denominations).
q The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify means that members would have considered unethical before joining the group (for example: collecting money for bogus charities).
q The leadership induces guilt feelings in members in order to control them.
q Members’ subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family and friends, and to give up personal goals and activities that were of interest before joining the group.
q Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
The Distinction Between Cultic Groups and Non-Cultic Groups
Making the distinction between cultic groups and non-cultic groups is significant. Group propaganda often tries to blur the distinction between cults, sects, communes and society’s organizations, (“The Catholic Church is a cult.” “The Marines are a cult.”).
“I have had to point out why the United States Marine Corps is not a cult so many times that I carry a list to lectures and court appearances. It cites 19 ways in which the practices of the Marine Corps differ from those found in most modern cults….
Cults clearly differ from such purely authoritarian groups as the military, some types of sects and communes, and centuries-old Roman Catholic and Greek and Russian Orthodox Orders. These groups, though rigid and controlling, lack a double agenda and are not manipulative or leader-centered. The differences become apparent when we examine the intensity and pervasiveness with which mind-manipulating techniques and deceptions are or are not applied.
Jesuit seminaries may isolate the seminarian from the rest of the world for periods of time, but the candidate is not deliberately deceived about the obligations and burdens of the priesthood. In fact, he is warned in advance about what is expected, and what he can and cannot do….
Mainstream religious organizations do not concentrate their search on the lonely and the vulnerable … Nor do mainstream religions focus recruitment on wealthy believers who are seen as pots of gold for the church, as is the case with those cults who target rich individuals …
Military training and legitimate executive-training programs may use the dictates of authority as well as peer pressure to encourage the adoption of new patterns of thought and behavior. They do not seek, however, to accelerate the process by prolonged or intense psychological depletion or by stirring up feelings of dread, guilt, and sinfulness …
And what is wrong with cults is not just that cults are secret societies. In our culture, there are openly recognized, social secret societies, such as the Masons, in which new members know up front that they will gradually learn the shared rituals of the group … In [cults] there is deliberate deception about what the group is and what some of the rituals might be, and primarily, there is deception about what the ultimate goal will be for a member, what will ultimately be demanded and expected, and what the damages resulting from some of the practices might be. A secret handshake is not equivalent to mind control.
How the United States Marine Corps Differs from Cults
- The Marine recruit clearly knows what the organization is that he or she is joining … There are no secret stages such as people come upon in cults. Cult recruits often attend a cult activity, are lured into ‘staying for a while,’ and soon find that they have joined the cult for life, or as one group requires, members sign up for a ‘billion year contract…’
- The Marine recruit retains freedom of religion, politics, friends, family association, selection of spouse, and information access to television, radio, reading material, telephone, and mail.
- The Marine serves a term of enlistment and departs freely. The Marine can reenlist if he or she desires but is not forced to remain.
- Medical and dental care are available, encouraged, and permitted in the Marines. This is not true in the many cults that discourage and sometimes forbid medical care.
- Training and education received in the Marines are usable later in life. Cults do not necessarily train a person in anything that has any value in the greater society.
- In the USMC, public records are kept and are available. Cult records, if they exist, are confidential, hidden from members, and not shared.
- USMC Inspector General procedures protect each Marine. Nothing protects cult members.
- A military legal system is provided within the USMC; a Marine can also utilize off-base legal and law enforcement agencies and other representatives if needed. In cults, there is only the closed, internal system of justice, and no appeal, no recourse to outside support.
- Families of military personnel talk and deal directly with schools. Children may attend public or private schools. In cults, children, child rearing, and education are often controlled by the whims and idiosyncrasies of the cult leader.
- The USMC is not a sovereign entity above the laws of the land. Cults consider themselves above the law, with their own brand of morality and justice, accountable to no one, not even their members.
- A Marine gets to keep her or his pay, property owned and acquired, presents from relatives, inheritances, and so on. In many cults, members are expected to turn over to the cult all monies and worldly possessions.
- Rational behavior is valued in the USMC. Cults stultify members’ critical thinking abilities and capacity for rational, independent thinking; normal thought processes are stifled and broken.
- In the USMC, suggestions and criticism can be made to leadership and upper echelons through advocated, proper channels. There are no suggestion boxes in cults. The cult is always right, and the members (and outsides) are always wrong.
- Marines cannot be used for medical and psychological experiments without their informed consent. Cults essentially perform psychological experiments on their members through implementing thought-reform processes without members’ knowledge or consent.
- Reading, education, and knowledge are encouraged and provided through such agencies as Armed Services Radio and Stars and Stripes, and through books, post libraries, and so on. If cult do any education, it is only in their own teachings. Members come to know less and less about the outside world; contact with or information about life outside the cult is sometimes openly frowned upon, if not forbidden.
- In the USMC, physical fitness is encouraged for all. Cults rarely encourage fitness or good health, except perhaps for members who serve as security guards or thugs.
- Adequate and properly balanced nourishment is provided and advocated in the USMC. Many cults encourage or require unhealthy and bizarre diets. Typically, because of intense work schedules, lack of funds, and other cult demands, members are not able to maintain healthy eating habits.
- Authorized review by outsiders, such as the U.S. Congress, is made of the practices of the USMC. Cults are accountable to no one and are rarely investigated, unless some gross criminal activity arouses the attention of the authorities or the public.
- In the USMC, the methods of instruction are military training and education, even indoctrination into the traditions of the USMC, but brainwashing, or thought reform, is not used. Cults influence members by means of a coordinated program of psychological and social influence techniques, or brainwashing.”
Adapted from Cults In Our Midst: The Hidden Menace to Our Everyday Lives, Margaret Singer with Janja Lalich, Jossey-Bass, 1995. Reprinted with authors’ permission.
AFF News, Vol. 2, No. 4, 1996